Archive for June, 2010

Big Fish, Small Pond

Sunday, June 6th, 2010

beastlogoIf The Eleventh Hour was our introduction to the new team on both sides of the camera, then The Beast Below is the presentation of their mission statement. 

About to set foot on her first non-terrestrial world, new first mate Amy Pond is given a quick briefing – something about strict non-interference which makes us worry we might actually be watching another Star Trek spin off.  Fortunately, she doesn’t believe this anymore than the Doctor does – and he’s in the midst of things before she’s even had time to notice he’s gone.  When Amy asks him what he’s going to do next, the Doctor replies with a far truer description of his modus operandi: “What I always do, stay out of trouble – badly.”

The story after the regeneration debut traditionally gives us a clearer look at the ‘new guy’, so what can be concluded from this episode? The magnitude of David Tennant’s impact on the lead role tempted me to automatically align him with Tom Baker, leaving the pleasant open-faced ‘new boy’ to fulfil the role of the next Davison. 

But I’m beginning to think it might be more appropriate to instead equate the often-authoritarian Tennant with Pertwee, leaving the show at an unprecedented height of it’s popularity and so making the younger, unpredictable Matt Smith our new Tom – bringing something entirely unique and showing every sign of taking the programme’s appeal even further.  (Good luck Doctor 12 – you’re going to need it.)

 Amy has her function to perform as well.  Initially, charming parallels can be drawn with Wendy from Peter Pan, as she is whisked away in her nightie the night before she has to enter the adult world (as a married woman).  Indeed, her first scene, the Doctor even makes it possible for her to ‘fly’. The traditional beginning-of-series trip to the far future has been retained, but this time the companion is more than just a wide-eyed cipher for the audience.  Amy transgresses, but then redeems herself in spectacular fashion; saving everyone and rescuing the Doctor from a terrible mistake, all while he’s busy sonic-ing up the wrong tree.

And she does this because of a brilliant insight into what makes the Doctor tick which he hasn’t even realised himself. Not bad for Amy’s first trip in the TARDIS, when most other girls are still struggling with the concept of time travel.

 Behind the camera, the new showrunner and writer of this story has his agenda, too.

In the hands of Steven Moffat the eleventh Doctor is perhaps less enchanted with the future achievements of the human race (for very good reason in this instance), displaying a flash of temper which took me all the way back to the fourth Doctor tearing a strip off the Deciders in Full Circle.

Children feature prominently in most of Moffat’s stories, (Blink appears to be an exception, although Carey Mulligan has just played a very convincing 16-year-old in An Education), something completely absent from the original series. To invoke season 18 again; Christopher Hamilton Bidmead gave us a year of beardy old men talking about the plot, whereas Moffat seems to channel our infant fears (monsters under the bed and creepy ‘fairground clowns’) and the compassionate qualities of our humanity which children inspire.

 The story itself is a Moffat twister, building to a ‘drawing room scene’ at the end where everyone’s true motives are explained.  Refreshingly, the Doctor only gets it half right, leaving Amy to fill in the other pieces.  Moffat might also be making a statement by presenting a thoroughly English colony, apparently lacking anyone of Gaelic or Celtic descent, which still insists on calling itself Starship UK.  In this deliberately drab, Brazil-esque environment, the flamboyant Liz 10 is exactly the kind of colourful and mysterious character needed – a sort of ‘Captain Jackie Sparrow’ crossed with V for Vendetta, saving us from the earnestness which lesser writers might have allowed to pervade.

 So our new team save the children, the whale and the queen, but that persistent crack in time gets the last crooked grin.  Is this device a throw back to early days of the programme when adventures weren’t always so neatly self-contained, or a nod to our modern preoccupation with story arcs? ‘Series Fnarg’ shows signs that it may turn out to be the best of old and new – let’s hope so.


The Raw and the Cooked

Friday, June 4th, 2010


Is it fair these days to expect a lot from a series/new Doctor/companion/production team debut?

Rose was a story largely about an earthly girl who meets a recognisable alien amid a rather subdued alien invasion. Five years on with all of the above to take into consideration you’d expect to be seeing much the same thing, the requirements being more or less identical. However since then the series has been at pains to outdo itself. Series finales and Christmas specials have come and gone, each besting the previous in spectacle. Story arcs have had emotional undercurrents, and the Doctor’s own personal emotional journey is something now traced in parallel with those of his mortal accomplices. Continuity has been built upon, extrapolated, and of course introduced anew, but left open in ways sometimes frustrating to the regular viewer.  So how, with all of this beforehand, were Moffat, Wenger and Willis to continue the show – potentially a more daunting task than resurrecting it, without upsetting its faithful viewers while attracting more?

The answer appears to be: change little narratively and change much visually and tonally. Much has been made by now of the new theme arrangement (Not sold – still, sorry), logo (er, it’ll do, but it is less important) and casting. The latter is uncannily on the button, with Matt Smith’s first ‘real’ scene as the Doctor delayed to great effect. Of course we saw him at Christmas and yes, he’s there in the TARDIS pre-credits haging on for dear life, but as the story opens who do we meet? Amelia Pond. Not Amy Pond of course – it’s another delayed introduction, as though Moffat’s saying “I know you know who these people will be, or who you think they will be, but have a look at this instead!”) And of course some of it is a trick. Bits of former stories and beats stitched together form the back-story of The Eleventh Hour, particularly Moffat’s own past stories for Who, but as in Rose the story isn’t the thing, rather it’s the meeting of the Doctor and Amy, and Young Amelia is crucial to the character of older Amy, as is the Doctor’s abortive earlier visits. It’s clever of the writer to play on this; for the past five years we’ve become used to finding out little bits about the Doctor – his recent past, his world, feats, mistakes and personality. Here Moffat mines the other aspect of the Doctor-companion dichotomy, and gives us someone whom we initially recognise, then find ourselves asking more questions about as the story unfolds. She’s an interesting one, this Amy Pond, certainly a little ‘unbalanced’ – Could it be that the crack in Amelia’s wall spread to her head?

It’s difficult to review Matt Smith’s performance without echoing so many reviews already available – very physical yes, but in a less-stagey way than his predecessor’s affectations. This new Doctor moves in mysterious ways, but in a natural manner – Matt Smith is either some sort of genius or he’s genuinely like this – all fingers and thumbs, near-constant expressions of surprise and gangly walk. In the body of another actor it could make for a tiring show – so much of this screams how NOT to play the Doctor, but I don’t think Smith is putting anything into his performance that isn’t already there (certainly his Jonathan Ross interview demonstrates much the same body language). Tempering this is a less manic style which takes him away from simple caricature and into something just as believable and natural. I think he’s a truly engaging figure, and can only agree that he is a real ‘find’ for the Doctor – young, physical, charismatic, but comfortably distanced from those same notes hit by David Tennant. His quiet moments with Young Amelia were the highlight for me, so it remains to be seen how he will aproach the other moments necessary for the role – the extremes of righteous anger that past Doctors have sometimes wobbled on (no names…), and similarly his ability to convey genuine authority. Something to look out for in stories to come.

It could be an interesting ride, and perhaps that’s the key-word to Moffat’s new style, ‘interest’. After five years the risk of things going stale was palpable – particularly after what almost amounted to a year-off with heavy saturation for Christmas in Tennant’s last year. You get the feeling that Matt Smith’s debut is ever-so-carefully weighed and measured to ensure enough familiarity is there while opening up new ways to bring the audience in. And it’s carried off so well, and so very effortlessly – a counterpoint to the bombast and spectacle of the RTD era, but skewed enough visually (an eyeball in space! A barking man!) to unseat one’s expectations from time to time. I’m happy to say I laughed a lot during this episode, and warmed instantly to Smith’s interpretation (isn’t he good with kids?). Perhaps in summing up I could say that what needed the sense of change was not so much the series, but this ever-so-humble viewer, and I’m happy enough with that. There are loads of places the show could go from here, and once again I’m hooked along for the ride, waiting to see where.